Thursday 29 December 2011

Probation Exceeding Targets - Shock!

I wouldn't normally be bothered expending time discussing statistics, let alone targets, as life is just too short and we are all familiar with the refrain that there's "lies, damned lies and statistics." However, seeing as Inspector Gadget has raised the issue, I think it's only fair to respond. In a post entitled 'Ruralshire Probation Service in melt down - SHOCK!' he says:-

"More than 43,000 offenders given community sentences have breached them in the past year.
A total of 43,521 criminals had to be tracked down and sentenced again in the year to July 2011.
Around 23,750 offenders failed to comply with simple punishments such as doing unpaid work.
Another 19,741 committed further crimes during their non-custodial sentences."

Well I've been looking at the National Offender Management Service Annual Report - a hefty tome at 115 pages, but on page 42 it states:-

"Orders and licences successfully completed (national KPI)

This is an indicator of offender compliance which measures orders and licences at their point of termination. It shows the proportion of these that have terminated successfully, i.e. which have run their full course without being revoked for breach or a further offence or have been revoked for good progress.

Target: To ensure that at least 72 per cent of orders and licences are successfully completed in 2010/11

Result: 76 per cent of orders and licences were successfully completed" 

It goes on to say that the the figure has risen consistently from 2008/9 from 72 per cent. Meanwhile Inspector Gadget goes on to make the following assertion:-

"In Ruralshire, offenders often wait so long for their first appointment after sentencing that their sentence has actually ended before they get to sit in front of  a probation officer."

Indeed this statement is repeated twice for emphasis. Administrative oversights and errors occur in every organisation, but all I can say is that I simply don't recognise the validity of such a sweeping assertion and would be very interested to hear of some evidence to support it.

The post concludes by saying:-

"All of this stuff adds to the general feeling of a lack of consequences for the criminal underclass."

I might have some sympathy with this view were it not that prison numbers continue to stand at an all-time historical high.

Saturday 24 December 2011

It's That Time of Year Again

Having at last done my bit for the economy, met all deadlines, achieved all targets and caught up with most colleagues and friends, it's time to batten down the hatches, steady the nerves and prepare for several days of over-indulgence.

To all my readers, old and new, I wish you a happy Christmas and a great New Year. I have reason to feel that 2012 will signal renewed enthusiasm for the written word with one or two new thoughts and comments to add to the whole criminal justice debate. For a kick-off, don't miss the long-awaited three part BBC 1 probation drama 'Public Enemies' due for screening on January 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Apparently Harry Fletcher from NAPO has given the production company some advice. I wonder what it was and if they took any notice........?

Cheers for now,


Friday 9 December 2011

Some Answers

My suggestion that readers might like to ask some questions has already produced a very interesting clutch, together with some truly thought-provoking comment. I'm really grateful you've all taken the time and it's had the desired effect of stirring me from a temporary stupor. I intend to respond to all contributions, but some are going to take a bit of time to ponder over, especially those that require a bit of self analysis. (By the way I had never noticed that I've been mispelling Inspector Gadget continuously - freudian slip or just poor spelling?). So thanks everyone - keep them coming and in no particular order, here's some answers. Lets start with a belter from a fellow blogger and magistrate:-

Do your colleagues have training commensurate with their responsibilities?

In essence this seems to have been triggered by PSR authors suggesting 'a suspended term of imprisonment' or similar without first addressing whether imprisonment is appropriate or not. I agree that the issue is not just one of semantics, but rather sloppiness, or ill-judgement and not how I would approach the matter. I don't think it's the probation officer's role to say if imprisonment is appropriate or not, but rather to point out the possible effects incarceration would have and compare those with other options, including suspension in order to allow the Bench to make a decision. On the wider issue of training - I'm tempted to just say 'no!' But let me add that my age, background and experience leads me to marvel on a daily basis as to the difference between the world when I started out and where I find myself today in every sphere of endeavour! I'm fatalistic I'm afraid - we're just stuck with it. 

Have you ever supervised anyone that you felt was genuinely innocent? How would you supervise them in this case?  

The short answer is yes, but I'm going to highlight a distinction in terms of seriousness. Over the years there's almost certainly been a significant number of wrongful convictions that have led to people being supervised by me for offences they didn't commit. However, 'probation' hasn't always been seen as a particularly onerous or pointless process and indeed used to have some significant benefits in terms of support, guidance and practical help. Hard to believe I know, but there was a time when clients looked forward to regular sessions with their officer, so it wasn't such a great hardship having been 'wrongfully' sentenced. Some of course would openly admit to having got away with 'shedloads' of other stuff and often agreed with me that justice had merely caught up with them, if albeit 'wrongfully' lol. 

But at the other end of the scale there was the murderer doing life. It was a hideous offence and in my opinion only a very dangerous psychopath could have been responsible. Over many years, every single time I met the guy I had to ask myself, 'do I think he could have done it?' He always protested his innocence and said he was 'fitted up'. I always privately agreed, but it would have been completely unprofessional to let him know that. The best I could do was to try and follow a relatively 'neutral' path with him, but eventually he refused to see me and there was no alternative but to allow transfer of the case. As a sobering aside, no similar offences have ever come to light, as far as I am aware........  

How does resentencing work for good behaviour and bad behaviour whilst on probation? 

It's still good practice to apply to the court for early discharge of an order so as to reward good progress. However, I'll be honest and admit that I haven't always done this as having one or two successes on your books is good for the spirit and helps make up for all the hopeless and difficult ones. We're only human and early discharge would mean no more 'nice chats' and in all probability you'd get a difficult one in their place. Sadly management cottoned on to this of course and are now always pushing for early discharge and it takes a strong-willed and confident officer to resist this where it seems inappropriate. 

Seriously 'bad' behaviour as in believable threats, seriously 'kicking off' or refusal to co-operate I can honestly say I've never really encountered. However, if regarded as not manageable it would clearly involve the police, or at least a return to court citing the order as being unworkable and with a request for re-sentence. Straight forward failure to attend appointments would lead to a return to court for breach, but not necessarily a request for revocation and re-sentencing. Most of us still believe in people being capable of change and learning from mistakes or poor judgement, and with redemption always as a possibility!  

More answers to follow shortly.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Wot no posts?!

Regular readers will be aware that there has been a deafening silence since Armistice Day. There's no particular significance in that, but I thought I ought to say something in case anyone was wondering about my well being. The truth is that I seem to have run out of things to say - or at least new things. I really don't want to be endlessly repeating myself, so it would appear that a natural break has occurred. Oh, and I did attract the attention of 'spammers' which can be very dispiriting.

Maybe it's the weather, the time of year, a reaction to circumstances or just the inevitable function of the passage of time, but I seem to be once again depressed by the state probation finds itself in. In truth there are times when I am just overwhelmed by the crass stupidity of so called changes, efficiencies and improvements. The ridiculous nomenclature that labels offices as 'service delivery units' and management initiatives that seek to re-invent the wheel such as evidenced by the latest fad, 'destistance' theory. As if we hadn't been doing that all along!

I guess I'm just fed up - and in this festive season, I'm spending more time on one of my favourite hobbies - sinking good beer in great pubs with friends. I'm sure something will eventually grab my attention and encourage words to flow. For a start, there's episode 5 of 'What does a Probation Officer do? But in the mean time I'd like to leave readers with an idea. How about posing some questions and I have a stab at providing some answers?

Cheers for now,


Friday 11 November 2011

A Controversial Suggestion

It's now well over a year since I started writing in earnest about probation and I'm conscious that a degree of repetition may be creeping in. I guess this is an occupational hazard and maybe there is only so much to be said about what is in essence quite a simple concept. 

This post from 22nd October on the Justice of the Peace Blog has encouraged a return to the perrenial problem faced by all courts, that of the chronic alcohol or drug-addicted homeless offender.   

"They are generally 45 year old males who look to be at death’s door. They appear at the magistrates` court with NFA….no fixed abode……on shoplifting or public disorder offences and they invariably have a long record of previous. There is no sentencing outcome which is appropriate. They are often given a notional fine and immediately released the fine deemed having been paid by their having been in custody overnight."

The piece goes on to quote a case reported by 'This is Derbyshire' and concerning a serial homeless shoplifter whose only intention is to get back to prison as soon as possible because he simply cannot cope in the outside world. Reading the piece you can sense that the frustration and despair is clearly shared by the journalist:- 

"WHAT a dilemma for a judge or magistrates – what should they do with a crook whose only intent is being sent back to prison? Darren Newsome has eventually got his wish. The serial shoplifter had hoped for this outcome back in July, only to be disappointed, when he appeared in court charged with theft.
Undeterred, he went straight back to shoplifting in August, September and October – and now Recorder Christopher Donnellan has locked him up for 40 weeks.

"Thank you very much, sir," responded Newsome.

He makes no secret of the attraction of prison – he gets regular meals and a roof over his head without having to worry about how he is going to pay for that every day. But what alternative does a judge have in such circumstances? He can hardly leave him free to carry on in his merry, criminal way. Traders have to be protected."

"We have to recognise that some people just cannot cope with life outside the prison environment.
It is sad and they deserve some sympathy for that – but our law-makers need to explore the options for helping them minimise their reliance on this costly last resort."

Well of course this problem has been around for a very long time and in fact was the driving force behind the establishment of the probation service way back in 1907. It was recognised that a criminal justice system needed a welfare arm in order to try and deal with such problem cases, and eventually the early Christian pioneers became professionally qualified social workers. What was never properly understood however was the probation officers dual role encompassing welfare with public protection. Politicians of both parties subsequently decided that there was political advantage to be had in dropping the welfare role of the probation service completely, substituting it for punishment instead.

Now regular readers will be aware that there are still some officers around that are experienced and practiced in the old ways and find it very hard indeed to forget their welfare roots. Cases like the one described above are very familiar indeed to such officers and it is quite obvious that the problem has not gone away - it's just that the State seemingly has absolutely no method of dealing with it any more. The frustration of sentencers is palpable.
What on earth can be done?

I have made this suggestion before, but I think it's worth repeating. Make a Community Order with supervision. I say this not just because it will in all probability infuriate probation staff at all levels, I say it because I feel it is right and humane. We used to handle these cases and we can re-learn the skills required. Orders can be made on people who are homeless and permission of the probation service is not required. There is no other agency able to do this work and therefore I would remind sentencers that it is within their power to sentence how they see fit and it's up to the probation service to respond.    

Saturday 5 November 2011

Got to be Worth a Try

Any mention of RSA gets me thinking about school days and typing exams for the girls while us blokes were doing stuff like GCE 'O' level Technical Drawing. I've never really given much thought to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce since, until today that is. Now with the strap line 'Ideas and actions for a 21st century enlightenment'  this august body, somewhat surprisingly, wants to build a prison?

I think most of us are familiar with the notion of think tanks writing reports and coming up with bright ideas as to how society can be improved. But here we have something altogether different - not just some novel ideas for improving the rehabilitative nature of prisons, but a plan to actually build or acquire one and operate it along very particular and different lines.

As far as I can see the hypothesis is one centred on full-time, social enterprise employment for all prisoners, with remuneration at not less than the statutory minimum wage. The prison would be located alongside what is termed a 'transition park' which would be home to many and varied social enterprises offering a range of employment opportunities, together with some temporary housing. The aim would be to involve prisoners in the management of the whole enterprise and incentivize them to remain offence free. It's being likened to a 'John Lewis' type shared-ownership ideal.

Having got up to speed with the RSA's track record with regard to initiatives like The Clink prison training kitchen and restaurant, together with drug projects and school curriculum development, they strike me as being a body who's time may well have come. They seem to me to be peculiarly well-placed to be able to offer something significantly better than just more private prisons run by mega corporations as envisaged by Ken Clarke. This is a story worth following and should give us all cause for hope. There is an article in today's Guardian.      

Friday 4 November 2011

The Good Old Days

Once again I'm grateful for readers contributions, like this from yesterday by Don:-

"I fear that you might also be looking back through rose tinted specs. Certainly I saw a lot of pretty poor practice alongside the good stuff. There were more ‘characters’ in the old days, but they sometimes took idiosyncratic to a level which had to be seen to be believed."

"Although I essentially became a probation officer to try to help people, I always thought our over-riding duty was to the court, so I used to breach people who didn’t comply with their sentences. I had colleagues in the ‘good old days’ who either didn’t know how to do a breach, or couldn’t be bothered. I remember one colleague who proudly told me she had never breached a client. It didn’t surprise me that she had a lot of no shows!"

This is a fair accusation and those that know me would no doubt say I do indeed have a tendency to look back with fond memories. I recognise much of what you say, and I think it has to be addressed in order to help make sense of the situation we now find ourselves in. I'm a firm believer in history being able to inform the present and help guide us through the future.

The situation in the 1980's was very different. Probation was an alternative to a sentence and the client had to give their agreement. We were indeed officers of the Court, but charged with the responsibility of assisting the client live a crime-free life during the period that the Court had placed trust in them. In essence all that was required of the client was to remain offence free and merely report as required. I think it's true that seen in this light, breach action was only felt appropriate in exceptional circumstances, not least because probation was not a punishment as it is today of course.

Pretty much the officer had complete freedom to determine the level and frequency of reporting. I would say that this enabled time and effort to be put into those risky or difficult cases, rather than the ones that were doing ok, and for whom probation was working it's magic. Some people did not have to report that often. After all, probation literally means a period of time during which a person can demonstrate that they can be trusted to change their behaviour. The job was invented because it was recognised that some people would need help in achieving this aim, hence we were charged with 'advising assisting and befriending.' 

We had less serious cases in those days and our work was unashamedly welfare-orientated. We were the social work arm of the criminal justice system and thus we all had to be fully qualified social workers. 

In an age before managerialism was invented and when officers felt attracted to a job that gave the opportunity of 'helping people', it did indeed encourage characters to flourish. Of course there was bad practice, but I would argue this was more than compensated for by the very encouragement of that idiosyncratic behaviour. We are all human and this is a person-centred occupation - or should be. The good old days gave officers the freedom to be themselves and innovate. As in all jobs there was bad, but at the same time there were many exceptional and brilliant officers that inspired us newer recruits. 

Those of us who have been around for a long time can recall amazing initiatives and ground-breaking work undertaken by colleagues. Personally I could name at least three current well-established charities started by humble PO's in my small locality alone. This will have been replicated everywhere. We did research, we ran projects, we joined committees. Above all we got involved because we had passion and wanted to do things. Management, such as it was, encouraged this and facilitated innovation.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. I believe we have lost more than has been gained by recent and not-so-recent changes. Newer colleagues sadly never knew the freedoms we had and of course the process has been very painful for us old-timers. The need for a return to the kind of ethos I've described could not be greater in my view and I intend to highlight this in coming posts. 

Thanks for commenting!         

Thursday 3 November 2011

Pause for Thought

I have previously voiced what I think every blogger knows. Writing and getting things off your chest can be hugely enjoyable and therapeutic, but all of us need to know it's being read. Sending all this stuff out into the ether is all very well, but it's great when it triggers a response and every now and then a comment really makes you stop and think. Yesterday is a case in point and I hope the author will not mind me quoting their words:-

"As a fellow probation officer who shares your passion and genuine interest in those we work with I fully agree with your sentiment about supervision being a magical/mysterious process. That said, I am one of those who voluntarily moved away from the 'magic' of direct client contact into a management role - for what I thought were the right reasons! - To try to influence management structures/cultures for the good of the clients since our effectiveness in working with them happens to achieve what the paymasters require 'reduction in offending'."

"Surprisingly, what I've found is that in espousing the highest standards and expectations from others (staff) in the supervision of those we work with, I've often met with resistance and resentment from some officers who clearly don't share my passion for working with and engaging the client. I therefore sometimes (more often than I would wish) find myself in a strange place as a manager having to convince,influence and sometimes insist that clients are respected and treated fairly. As a manager/practitioner I really struggle with the fact that not all probation employees view working with clients as a 'privilege' and fully respect their position."

This is quite a reality check. It serves to confirm a truth that I've been trying to ignore - namely that the thoughts, ideas and concepts that I'm spending so much time recording here are possibly nothing more than an illusion. Perhaps they are indeed just a description of a bye-gone golden age of probation, penned by one of an ever-diminishing bunch of 'old-style' officers, and have no relevance for today's practitioners. You see I've noticed this change in attitude towards clients myself and been shocked by it.

There was a time when it would have been an absolute 'given' about clients being respected and treated fairly. Now we have a manager saying they have to 'insist' on it. No wonder the Prisoners Families Voices website is routinely full of negative comments regarding probation. I used to believe it was possibly the result of a move towards the use of more unqualified Probation Service's Officers, but I know full well that's not the complete answer. There has indeed been a monumental cultural shift within the probation service and it's not good. Us 'old-timers' are not going to be around for much longer and the Service is inexorably losing it's collective memory. To be honest there needs to be some sign that the message just might still have relevance before the memory fades completely.

I'll end with a final quote from the manager:-

"I suppose I want to illustrate that there are probably many people like me (in management positions) who went in voluntarily because they thought they could make a difference and were disillusioned by 'managerialism'. I am hanging on in there trying to make a difference often considering reverting back to practice because my energies seemed better spent then! What keeps me going is the passion I have for the work of probation, of effecting change at whatever level and my fundamental belief in fairness."



Wednesday 2 November 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 4


Hopefully all your hard work in garnering as much information as possible about the client, making a sound assessment and convincing the court of the soundness of the reasoning will ultimately lead to the making of an order. In an ideal world, having done all the donkey work, formed the basis for establishing a good working relationship and become the expert on the case, you should become the supervising officer. This scenario certainly describes my experience, understanding and philosophy. Indeed it could be said to be just plain obvious and commonsense, but sadly for all sorts of reasons no longer holds true in anything other than the most serious of cases. 

Anyway, supervision is what a probation officer is expected to do whether the case is inherited or seen through from the beginning. Supposedly the process was made easier by the introduction of OASys which handily incorporated a supervision plan section within it's all-embracing remit. It sounds a useful and helpful facility, but believe me it isn't and in my experience only serves to frustrate the author in being able to get on and complete the report by forcing often arbitrary selections from a 'pick and mix' menu.  Unfortunately the cunningly-designed software will not allow it's omission. I'll be honest and say I've never expended much time and effort on this section, given that it never seems capable of being able to express in plain English what I really think the aims of supervision should be. 

Unfortunately the word 'supervision' has become somewhat of a large stick with which to beat the Probation Service. In the midst of widespread ignorance about what we do, politicians over recent years have encouraged the public to develop completely unrealistic expectations of our power and remit in relation to 'supervising' clients. Of course the media has played its part in encouraging the notion that if someone is being 'supervised' we must know what they are doing 24/7. As a consequence, any further offending must, by definition, be a failure on our part. Why? Because they're on supervision and we should have prevented it. Ludicrous, grossly unfair, never has been the case and never can be of course, when typically a client might only be seen once a week for an hour max. 

That being said, supervision as I understand it remains at the core of what probation is all about. The key to it having an effect or not is almost entirely down to the quality of the relationship between officer and client. This alone should ensure that appointments are kept without the constant threat of having to impose sanctions or ultimate breach action. If the reporting session is felt to be useful and constructive by the client, attendance in my experience will not be a great problem. That is not to say that sessions are always necessarily easy and friendly. Difficult things have to be discussed and attitudes and behaviour challenged, but this is all down to the skill of the officer in deciding how and when to approach such matters. The client must feel they can trust you and that you're being fair with them, even when telling them something they do not want to hear. It's not about friendship, but rather mutual respect.

That small word 'supervision' can embrace just about any and every facet of human experience. The session can go in any direction and take a variety of forms. They can be incredibly difficult and emotional or easy and chatty. Each time in effect it's a blank sheet of paper on which the officer can write, or attempt to write, anything. Sometimes it's about listening, or counselling,  advising or sympathising. Sometimes challenging, interrogating, checking, or admonishing. But the aim is always the same, to encourage and support positive changes. 

Without doubt it's the most interesting bit of the job and I've never understood why some officers voluntarily move away from it, say into management. I can say it's still what makes this a brilliant vocation and an utter privilege to be given the opportunity of sharing other peoples lives. It's a process that can and does change lives. It's the true essence of probation's magical, but mysterious process.   

Tuesday 1 November 2011

On the Run

The other night I found myself watching an episode of ITV's new investigative reporting programme 'Exposure' on i-player. Entitled 'On the Run' it was about the number of people who are subject to arrest warrants at any given time, either as a result of skipping bail, absconding from prison or disappearing whilst on licence.

I'll be honest and say I approached this self-imposed task with some trepidation because I'm not sure there's a huge story here, but actually ended up being quite enthused. Of course the vast majority are eventually brought to justice by being arrested for further offences and identified by DNA. But I think, quite unintentionally, the producers of this programme have just invented a whole new twist on a very familiar TV genre. The hypothesis of the programme was that there are countless thousands of dangerous people out there, the subject of unexecuted warrants and therefore escaping justice. Freedom of Information requests flushed out some seemingly alarming figures, but the star of the show, a former detective turned reporter, decided to illustrate the problem by trying to hunt down three fugitives from justice on camera.

We learned that in order to try and evade justice, two had jumped bail and left the country and a third had simply gone to ground having decided that the terms of his licence were too onerous. There was some half-hearted attempt at name changes, and cheekily two fugitives were continuing to openly use Facebook, with one taunting the police. I found it equally informative and hilarious that concerted efforts to snare them by means of 'honey traps' proved mightily difficult given their lackadaisical attitude to life, but the process was easily as enthralling as many of the now tired-looking police chase programmes we are so familiar with. 

So there we have it. A whole new idea for a show. There is an endless pool of gripping TV out there to be tapped into and it will be doing a useful public service at the same time. A sort of cross between 'Crimewatch', 'Rogue Traders' and 'Police, Camera, Action.' But with the police stretched and unable to put a great deal of time into trying to execute all the warrants outstanding at any given time, why not go a little further and follow the North American model by putting a bounty on their head? Another example of the big society - the public can monitor live security cctv via the internet, so could they be induced to get a little more actively involved I wonder?     

Monday 31 October 2011

A Fine Mess and No Mistake

It came as no great surprise when Ken Clarke announced last week the government's intention to abolish the hugely damaging and ill-thought out IPP sentence introduced by Tony Blair. It was all part of that government's 'tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime' agenda designed to curry favour with the voters and has had the result of stuffing our prisons with upwards of an additional 7,000 or so extra 'lifers.'

Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences are indeterminate sentences and so are indeed akin to a life sentence because release only comes when someone is deemed safe to release by the Parole Board. Sadly however, that's where the similarity ends. Unlike most other kinds of life sentence, the typical 'tariff' or earliest date before release will be considered is normally very short and averages about 3 years. This makes IPP prisoners a very unusual and difficult group for the system to deal with. It could be said they are neither fish nor fowl - not 'proper' lifers, which the prison service is well-geared up to deal with - but actually medium to short term prisoners by any other name. But we are now several years down the line since their introduction and vast numbers of IPP prisoners are languishing in prison well over their tariff dates. 

Even before the last government lost the election, concern was growing in relation to the huge and growing problem IPP was becoming. Never intended to be used in that many instances, it has nevertheless proved hugely popular with Judges who add to the total on a very regular basis. Unfortunately very little thought was ever given as to how this group would be dealt with within the prison system.

In order to assist the Parole Board in reaching a conclusion regarding risk, various accredited courses have to be undertaken that are designed to address issues such as violence, sexual offending, thinking skills, drugs and alcohol. These courses do not run in all prisons and places are somewhat limited. Added to this is the fact that the Parole Board has become increasingly risk-averse in recent years, no doubt partly in response to negative public opinion and political pressure as a result of some notorious cases. Unhappily this has coincided with cultural and professional changes within the Probation Service, who are the people charged with advising the Parole Board regarding release. I have written on many occasions regarding the unhelpful effect of OASys in only highlighting negative aspects of an offenders situation, thus leading typically to over-cautious or negative recommendations for release.

All this of course has proved the perfect recipe for a massive and growing problem. One might say another fine mess the politicians have got us into. And to be honest it's not exactly clear how Ken Clarke intends to get us out of it with his mix of further 'mandatory' life sentences and determinate sentences. It seems some IPP sentences will be converted to life sentences, but the criteria and rationale has yet to be spelt out.

Meanwhile, here we have an experienced commentator, Mr Raymond Peytors of TheOpinionSite.Org who clearly has a problem with probation:-

 "It looks now as if Mr. Clarke has been forced to abandon the idea of a formalised test and means that probation officers will be allowed to go on getting things hopelessly wrong and to continue to introduce their own bias and prejudice into release procedures."

"Mr. Clarke has also not made it clear as to who will determine whether or not an IPP prisoner has his sentence converted to a determinate sentence or, if the case is serious enough, a mandatory life sentence. One may presume that this procedure would be carried out by the Parole Board, no doubt with all possible interference from the Probation Service who are already fearful that their overbearing and unjust influence over release decisions may be under attack."

"We can expect too a howl of anguish from all those involved with any form of public protection and whose jobs and considerable income rely on maintaining the myth that everyone convicted of certain types of offences must be “dangerous” and incapable of change."

I'm not sure it's worth dignifying such comments with a response, but merely leave readers to form their own opinion.


Sunday 30 October 2011

Community or Custody?

According to their website, "Make Justice Work is a campaign which aims to boost public support for a change in how Britain deals with minor offenders." In order to further this aim they've had a panel of 'the great and the good' conducting an enquiry over the last year or so.

Chaired by Daily Telegraph journalist Peter Osborne, not particularly known for being a bleeding heart liberal, it had the commendable aim of trying to inject some sense into that tired old political game of reducing all argument about sentencing to being either soft or tough on crime.

I've written on this topic myself a number of times and in particular highlighted how disastrous it has been to allow politicians to use criminal justice policy as a political football over recent years. For too long policy has been dictated by pandering to public opinion in the hope of gaining some short-term political advantage. The Probation Service has been one major casualty of this absurd and uninformed meddling and blame for the mess we now find ourself in should be placed firmly at the politicians door.

When first announced, I must admit I did not feel it was a particularly good omen that it was not felt appropriate to include a panel member with extensive probation experience. Now that the final report has been published, sadly I feel somewhat vindicated in this view, having had the opportunity of absorbing the analysis and conclusions. In a sense I don't think the report has come up with anything remotely surprising in saying that community sentences would be preferable to custody for many offenders. But what I do find startling is some of the analysis.

The panel visited four projects, each working in a particular field; Intensive Supervision for 18-25 year old men; women; drug and alcohol and mental health diversion. Clearly the Intensive Supervision scheme 'did what it said on the tin' and involved electronic tagging and what is described as an out of hours 'community outreach' service. It lasted from between 12 and 24 months and occupied offenders five days a week. Now this is just the sort of onerous community sentence that would be likely to get support from the likes of the right-wing press and it's clear the panel were mightily impressed.

However the report did identify one small problem that will not come as any great surprise to seasoned probation officers. I love this bit:-

"The panel were concerned to hear that the tough nature of these orders can sometimes lead to unintended consequences. Offenders have sometimes been known to breach the terms of their sentences so that they are sent to prison instead. Providers of effective community sentences need to find ways to work with offenders to understand the order and see it as an opportunity to reform."

Who would have thought that then? The sentence did indeed prove extremely onerous for some participants: so much so that some were either breached or just opted for custody instead. It's all very well designing an intensive punishment as an alternative to custody, but if the balance is tipped too far towards stick with not enough carrot content, the aim becomes self-defeating.

Many a time I have discussed with clients at PSR stage, often in custody, the relative merits of various sentences and for significant numbers their problems are so numerous and seemingly so intractable, that a period in prison is seen as a blessed relief and often allows release with a relatively 'clean slate.' The panel seem to have completely missed the point that this issue is absolutely key to the success or not of intensive supervision schemes. 

In relation to offenders with drug or alcohol problems, the panel fails completely to address whether current drug treatment models are working and just concerns itself with lamenting that alcohol treatment is very much the poor relation. I am mystified by these two statements:-

"Diversion from custody to residential drug treatment produces a lifetime cost saving to society of approximately £200,000 per offender."

"£980 million would have been saved if those offenders given custodial sentence of twelve months or less in 2007 had instead been diverted to residential drug treatment."

Clearly the panel are not aware that 'residential drug treatment' is a facility akin to hens teeth in terms of availability. I suspect they might mean 'community' drug treatment. But how can you get the terminology wrong in a supposed high-powered report like this? Residential drug treatment, ie in a purpose-built facility, would be an enormous step forward for certain people with long-standing drug problems. But it simply isn't available nowadays, due to the cost of course. Pretty much all that is on offer is methadone while a person continues to live in the same often drug-riddled community whence they developed their dependency in the first place. Or they're homeless of course.

In the section about diversion from custody of persons suffering from mental health problems, there is no mention at all of learning disability or those suffering emotional distress or from psychological problems. Instead they seem to put great store on the abilities of early mental health assessments - no doubt by Community Psychiatric Nurses or equivalent - being able to  obviate the need for 'expensive and time-consuming' psychiatric reports. Indeed they trumpet this as a significant improvement and cost-saving measure.

Sadly my experience tells me that what is proposed is unlikely to be adequate and encouraging less specialist medical reports, ultimately counter-productive. If anything I believe there is a greater need for expert medical opinion in far more cases because of the failings of the National Health Service generally. I have always been amazed that it is often only at court stage that long-established mental health, learning disability and psychological problems can be properly diagnosed, but only when expert reports are commissioned. It's a disgrace, but a situation that this report seems to want to compound on the grounds of cost and expediency. 

I cannot over-emphasise the benefit to society - not to mention the individual - that can accrue just from obtaining a definitive diagnosis that would give insight into a persons offending and map out a suitable treatment plan. This cannot be done 'on the cheap' and requires the skill and expertise of a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist, not a CPN. Once again we seem to have a report that is completely unable to differentiate between the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology and the appropriate role boundaries of CPN's. 

In short I found this report disappointing. It reaffirmed much of the blindingly obvious, came up with nothing new, but in the process managed to miss some key issues along the way. 

Friday 28 October 2011

Some Observations 9

Fate has a habit of throwing up some unkind and unfortunate situations, none more so than the former social worker selected by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. Unbelievably, Christoper Jarvis turns out to have had paedophile interests and has just been sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for possessing seriously indecent sexual images of children on his computer. 

This news is so disturbing on a whole range of levels, but particularly that of being a breach of trust. Writing as a qualified male social worker, but one that chose a career in probation, it serves to underline the very uneasy feeling I suspect many of us have from time to time about being in the presence of children and how we might be perceived by others. It's a dreadful state of affairs, not spoken of much I suspect, but my instinct tells me it's probably a significant factor in relatively few men choosing childcare, especially residential childcare, as a career path. It's this aspect that so depresses me when I hear of men in particular who occupy positions of trust and are subsequently discovered to have been offending. It so harms us all. 

I'm grateful to the person who brought to my attention this apparent scoop by the BBC about Armley Gaol in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Apparently it has been selected as the first pilot scheme involving Payment by Results in a state-run prison. I've written somewhat enthusiastically about this idea previously and particularly in relation to the pilot scheme at privatised HMP Peterborough involving those inmates serving 12 months or less.

Somewhat astonishingly, despite the complete absence of any evidence that the idea of rewarding agencies if they succeed in reducing reoffending actually works, the Ministry of Justice nevertheless feel it's worth rolling the idea out to other establishments. But I must say I'm somewhat mystified as to how the idea will work at a state-run prison that is not working to a contract containing a profit motive. No doubt all will become clear over the coming weeks - or can someone enlighten me? Economics has never been my strong point.  

Meanwhile G4S have indeed had to replace all locks at HMP Birmingham - a very costly process indeed amounting to somewhere in the region of between £250,000 and £1million. It must rank as one of the very worst nightmares of every Number 1 Governor and the blame for the absence of a set of pass keys has indeed been put down to a disgruntled member of staff unhappy at the prison having recently been privatised. Although I've never worked in a prison, I'm sufficiently aware of basic security to know that all keys are tracked with an identity tag that has to be exchanged at the gate. I wonder how on earth someone seems to have got away with it?      

Wednesday 26 October 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 3


Having conducted the interviews and made an assessment, it's time to try and influence the criminal justice process and this is most often by means of a Pre Sentence Report either to the Magistrates or Crown Court. Having spent many years preparing such reports, I can say that some of my best work has been as a result of being able to influence a court to take a certain course of action that both satisfies the requirement for punishment and that encourages rehabilitation. It's at this point that issues such as Learning Disability, past emotional damage or mental health can be explored and highlighted. This is to name but a few of the vast ranges of factors that serve to contribute to someone's offending and should in my view be considered by a court before passing sentence. 

Traditionally it's been a priviledged position occupied by probation in being able to address sentencers directly. However, regular readers will be aware that I've been highly critical of recent changes in this vital area of our work and especially the extent to which OASys has had a detrimental effect both on the quality and effectiveness of PSR's. I believe this vital process of providing courts with good quality assessments and recommendations pre-sentence has been damaged significantly by OASys.

It still remains a mystery to me that Crown Court Judges in particular have had very little to say about the changes in style and content and one wonders if they did indeed ever pay much heed to PSR's at all? The upshot of the dreadful 'pull-through' OASys-generated reports foisted upon us by our prison-dominated NOMS management has been a massive increase in the time required to complete full PSR's, which in turn has had the knock-on effect of requiring short format Fast Delivery Reports that do not require OASys preparation. It's been a double whammy for the Probation Service with OASys requiring more time to complete a report and delivering reduced quality in one fell swoop.

Now even as I write this I'm aware that hackles will be raised in certain quarters and if anyone can be bothered it might re-ignite old arguments. But I think I've almost got past caring anymore. It's as I see it and I think the proof is in the fact that PSR's are fast becoming irrelevant to the Criminal Justice process. We did that - our management made an absolute cornerstone of the system redundant through a complete inability to fully understand what the true effects of OASys would be. We are now rapidly moving towards the notion of Post Sentence Reports, thus completely ditching one of the key aspects of our work, namely providing courts with information and informed assessments that are independent of the prosecution and defence, in order to assist in the process of arriving at sentences that are fair and just.

I suppose somewhat understandably I've dwelt upon the PSR in terms of influencing, but there are other situations such as Parole Board reports, Recall Reports, Sentence Planning reports etc, etc. In each case the author is challenged to express in written form what the situation is, move towards an assessment with reasoned argument and come up with a conclusion and recommendation. It's without doubt a skliful process and if undertaken professionally should seek to influence decision-makers whilst taking due regard to public protection and rehabilitation. It's not an easy path to tread and does not always win friends. It also means we remain much misunderstood as a profession.       


Friday 21 October 2011

Some Observations 8

I know this is old news, but I really felt I couldn't pass up the opportunity of commenting on the seemingly inexorable rise of the dreadful Louise Casey. The Prime Minister no less announced last week that she was resigning as Victim Commissioner in order to head up the post mortem into the recent riots. She will have particular responsibility apparently for developing policy concerning the 120,000 or so troubled families felt to be responsible for the vast majority of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Seeing as she had been tipped to become a possible Labour Peer, to now have the full endorsement of the likes of Eric Pickles is quite remarkable to say the least, but possibly just serves to confirm her true right-wing credentials. Somehow I don't see any enlightened liberal policies resulting from her highly-paid endeavours, but it's just possible her track record on not fully engaging brain before speaking out may be her undoing.

It was good to see a piece about HMP North Sea Camp on last Sunday's edition of BBC Countryfile. I've written about this particular open prison before and it's interesting history having been constructed in the 1930's by Borstal boys who marched from HMP Stafford and spent many years not just building a hutted prison, but also reclaimed many square miles of agricultural land from the wild Lincolnshire coastline. Such open prisons are extremely important in being able to help long-term prisoners adapt to eventual release, providing as they do varied full-time employment opportunities.

The sad thing is that prisons like North Sea Camp are pretty dilapidated and there have been rumours that it may succumb to Ken Clarke's spending cuts. This would be a very unwise move in my view as there are now so few working farms connected to prisons and the therapeutic value of often seriously damaged individuals working with animals cannot be over emphasised. The programme is still on BBC i-player and well worth catching. Keen-eyed viewers may spot some narrow gauge railway lines as until fairly recently there was still a small working system, but I suspect it fell foul eventually of MoJ Health and Safety regulations. What a shame.

Finally, am I the only person pondering if there might be some connection between G4S taking over HMP Birmingham and the disappearance of a set of pass keys? This is about as serious as it gets in terms of prison security and may involve changing every lock in the jail at vast expense. G4S have announced a number of redundancies and staff morale is quite likely to be extremely low.    

Wednesday 19 October 2011

A Skewed View?

Every now and then I find myself gasping at a piece of radio news and am left pondering 'did I hear that right?' The Welsh Rugby coach going public and saying that he considered cheating, but decided it was not morally right to do so. What on earth does that mean? What could the motivation be for saying something like that? Even more interesting is the response from his boss saying he should be congratulated for deciding not to cheat. WHAT?! 

I don't know about you, but I feel I could do with a pat on the back for deciding to pay for everything I needed from Tesco's the other day. For not doing a 'drive off' having filled the car up with petrol, or buying a ticket on a crowded train. The list is endless and the answer not just about weighing up the possibility of getting caught - the deterrent effect - surely it's also about responsibility?

I've written before about the the fact that for society to function well, citizens must all act responsibly, or the vast majority at least. The sad fact is that it just needs one person to be irresponsible to have a potentially devastating effect.  As you approach the brow of a blind hill, you have to believe that every driver coming the other way is acting responsibly and not on your side of the road. Maybe I'm of an unusually nervous disposition, but tall buildings always scare me regarding the possibility of something falling, having been carelessly left on a ledge or by a window. And then there's the possibility of malicious or reckless intent. I well remember one of the very first court reports I ever wrote was regarding a young man throwing bricks off a railway bridge at oncoming trains. 

Over the years my work as a probation officer has often involved cases where not acting responsibly has had tragic and profound consequences. Just one blow to the head can be terminal and the recent tragic death of an electrician working on Strictly Come Dancing serves to remind me of this. Of course the law is there to supposedly act as a deterrent and in deed this aspiration was very recently confirmed by the Appeal Court upholding four years imprisonment on two young men for inciting civil unrest by internet message. I said right from the beginning that such a sentence in no way surprised me, but I'm less sure as to whether deterrence really works.

Civilised society has always had the problem of how to encourage or ensure that everyone acts responsibly for the common good. Just one isolated act of irresponsibility can not only kill or maim, but can also be another small step towards impoverishing us all. Until one man threw a condom full of dye from the House of Commons public gallery at Tony Blair, it had been open to the chamber. Now the public are hermetically sealed behind glass screens. 

I suppose I've always tended to be a 'glass half empty' kind of a guy and should instead try to be more upbeat. Maybe I need to marvel and rejoice that most people decide to act like the Welsh rugby coach and not cheat. I try to tell myself that most of us are law-abiding for most of the time and it's only this line of work that gives me a skewed view of the world. Mmmmmm...          

Monday 10 October 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 2

Make an Assessment

I was going to say that having completed the interview with the client either for the first or thirty first time, you move towards making an assessment, but actually it's a continuous process. In reality it's not that much different from what we all do unconsciously as human beings during every interaction. The only real difference is that it very much becomes a conscious process with a whole range of questions running through your mind. Just how open do I think this person is being? Does their story ring true? Are there discrepancies in the prosecution disclosures? Do they have a learning disability? Are they dangerous? What are the risk factors? Are they deteriorating? Do they have a mental illness? Are they psychologically damaged? Are they motivated? Do they have insight? Etc etc.  

Making as good an assessment as possible is probably the most important part of the job because everything else flows from it. In essence it's the diagnosis to use a medical analogy. Get it wrong, or miss something and it can have significant consequences not just for the client, but possibly a future victim or wider society. It's why training and experience are so necessary for the job, although I have always had doubts that the ability to make sound judgements can be taught. A bit like empathy, you either have it or you don't. I've known quite senior colleagues who, rather worryingly, were hopeless at assessing so it's certainly not to do with length of service or age. 

It's the making of assessments that probably lies at the root of much conflict and dissatisfaction between client and officer. In my experience this has increased significantly over recent years and is felt to be a function of the transition from social work agency to so-called law enforcement. I'm not entirely sure why because even when we were all social work trained, we still had highly dangerous and risky people to deal with. Possibly it's because probation officers only deal with this group nowadays and not the wide variety of general offenders we had on our books years ago. Certainly society has changed significantly and clients are just representative of those changes, specifically attitudes towards authority generally.

In rooting around the internet I came across a long piece written for Inside Time by a serving prisoner and these quotes give a flavour of how things can appear from the other side:-

"Although many probation officers claim empirical evidence is an acceptable substitute for that fact-based, what such evidence really boils down to is usually nothing more substantial than an ‘impression’ – a feeling in their water that it’s a bad ‘un they’re dealing with. And what is all the more remarkable is the extent to which other decision makers such as parole panels appear willing to accept unquestioned the professional opinion of probation officers. It’s a gullibility readily exploited by some probation staff."

"Why it is that probation staff can so easily invoke professional opinion in their reports without credible supporting evidence whereas professionals in other areas such as criminology, psychiatry, psychology, etc have to state the factual basis of their opinion? And more to the point, why do too many prisoners accept negative probation reports unquestioned? Is it fear that to challenge them will jeopardise their sentence progression (and have risk factors increased as a result)? Or is it because many prisoners’ educational limitations handicap their ability to spot often glaring flaws (especially false premises) in probation reports?"

The whole article is well worth reading as an example, possibly an extreme example, of the negativity felt towards probation officers by some clients. Of course it's understandable in part because of the nature of our respective positions and such views can be all-too-easily explained in terms of 'well he would say that wouldn't he?'  But it's certainly something I've been conscious of over the years. What we do is not a science and never can be, but that just means we have to use all our skill and judgement in trying to make as good an assessment as possible, but always mindful of the potential consequences.

It has become fashionable to talk in terms of officers having to make 'defenceable decisions' and there is an argument that this has made officers much more risk-averse. This is entirely understandable in the current environment where, following a serious further offence by one of your clients, the blame seems to fall upon you rather than the perpetrator. This never used to be the case of course, but possibly explains the tendency towards what are perceived as 'negative' reports, 'lets err on the side of caution' risk assessments and endless referrals to behaviour modification courses.

The astute will notice that so far OASys has not been mentioned. The oh so confidently-named Offender Assessment System. Surely that should do what the name implies and enable all staff, no matter what degree of experience and training they have, to make sound assessments? Surely it introduces an element of dispassionate science and removes any danger of officer bias in producing accurate and fair assessments? Dream on. All it does is take up huge chunks of your time and hinder the very process I've been trying to describe. Making a good assessment is a cerebral process. Filling in OASys is a bureaucratic process.    


Sunday 9 October 2011

How Disappointing!

In reading this recent article in the Guardian about former Prison Service Director Martin Narey joining G4S, I was disappointed to note that apparently the former Chief Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges has been snapped up by Interserve. You will recall that there has been a steady flow of former senior public servants in the Criminal Justice sector, such as Phil Wheatley another former Prison chief, deciding to 'embrace new challenges' in the burgeoning private sector.

All understandable possibly, especially given the current government policy of slimming down the public sector in favour of wholesale transfers of state functions to either private industry or charities. But I have to say I'm very disappointed that the former Chief Inspector of Probation was not able to use his many skills and talents, honed from a professional lifetime in Public Service, furthering that service rather than going over to the opposition. It's possible he tried and certainly this article from the Guardian in July could be taken as a barely-veiled invitation for job offers from the wider probation family. Surely his expertise would have been invaluable as the Service generally tries to come to grips with how to best position itself and respond to a rapidly approaching competitive market? Were there really no approaches from this side of the fence? 

I suppose what we're left with is the very depressing scenario that, in our field at least, the Public Service appears to be a lost cause and all the talent - and it has to be said smart money - is increasingly migrating to the private sector. If you have time, just root around on the Interserve website and you will see that these so-called Facility Management companies turn their hand to just about anything. Depending on your views about capitalism amid the present economic crisis, we're either on a hand cart to hell, or outfits like this will be running whole economies, nay countries soon. I feel one of my heads coming on and need to lie down.     

Saturday 8 October 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 1

I find myself once again staring at a blank blog page waiting for inspiration when it occurs to me that perhaps it might be helpful to try and spell out exactly what a probation officer does - or should do in my view. I'm only too well aware that despite having written extensively on the subject for over a year now, it might still be a mystery to some. So this may well be the first of a series that tries to succinctly sum up what is involved. I suppose a bit like a magician revealing how a trick works, but hopefully without the danger of being expelled by the probation equivalent of the Magic Circle. Lets start at the very beginning, as they say.  

Establish a Relationship

When I first mentioned this some months ago I have to say I was genuinely surprised when it clearly raised eyebrows in certain quarters. It served to remind me that what may appear obvious to insiders is not necessarily so elsewhere. Virtually all interactions between officer and client occur in private and normally with only the two people present. I used to feel it was analogous to a doctor/patient relationship, only more so in the past when each officer had the luxury of their own room behind a door with their name on it. My office was one of the last to go over to dreaded 'open plan' and soulless interview rooms, but at least the meeting is still in private. In the past it was not unknown to have comfortable armchairs and sometimes a cup of tea was felt appropriate in order to oil the wheels of a possibly difficult interview. 

The thing about probation is that you may see a person just once, say for the purpose of preparing a Pre Sentence Report for court, or someone else over many, many years if you are supervising a long sentence or they are regular offenders. In each case, in order to obtain information and an understanding of that person, you have to establish a rapport with them, possibly at a very stressful time in their life and when they may feel motivated not to tell you the whole story. Much of what you want them to talk about may often be of the most serious nature and disturbing kind and you have to try and gauge when it's appropriate to push, or when it's appropriate to just listen. 

Sometimes it's necessary to challenge, or to dig or approach things from another angle in order to get as good a picture as possible as to what they did and why they did it. Only then can you try and help that person understand themselves, their motivations and encourage a path towards altered behaviour. It should be pre-eminently obvious that none of this is possible unless there is a positive, caring, professional relationship between officer and client. There has to be respect and trust between these two people in order to lay the foundations for change to be given a chance. Some things are hard enough to tell one person, let alone a succession of people, so continuity is vital. 

Happily, all the research proves that it is this relationship between officer and client that is the single most significant factor in affecting positive outcomes. In many ways I think it's sad to have to say that as to me it's just so damned obvious. It's the reason why I've never really had a serious problem getting clients to keep appointments. I like to believe that they turn up because they want to see me, not just because they have to. Of course the quid pro quo is that I'm there to see them. I cannot say how sad it makes me feel to hear of case after case reported on Prisoners Families Voices of either officers not being in the office or a succession of different duty staff seeing clients week after week. 

I know we all have other commitments and sickness befalls us from time to time, but I think it's more than that. When I joined, I think officers were far more 'proprietorial' about their clients than they are nowadays. There was an assumption that you kept clients for as long as it took, whereas nowadays there's lots of anecdotal evidence that it doesn't matter if they're passed around like parcels. I know I always put great thought and effort into who of my colleagues might be appropriate to stand in for me if I'm to be unavoidably absent. Sadly, I don't see much evidence of this sort of individual arrangement nowadays.

Especially amongst newer colleagues, I sense there is less emphasis on the importance of building and maintaining relationships with individual clients. Instead there seems to be a policy of shared responsibility in what might be regarded as the priority to just make sure clients 'report.' There seems to be a prevalent view that it doesn't matter who they report to. I have no idea why this might be. Possibly it's a symptom of stress or workloads. I can't believe it's a policy being undertaken deliberately to avoid clients as that would surely be unprofessional? But I can see how it might look and feel from a clients point of view.

Possibly as a reflection of younger people's more mobile lifestyles and professional aspirations, there appears much more movement of staff nowadays. This is extremely unsettling to clients, especially long-term prisoners and ironically is completely counter to the aspiration enshrined in the doctrine of 'seamless end-to-end offender management' ushered in with NOMS.  Whatever, I'm clear that the absence of well established relationships between officer and client will prove utterly self-defeating in being able to effect change in people. If nothing else, it simply doesn't satisfy the self-imposed Jim Brown test of 'how would this make me feel?'                

Thursday 6 October 2011

A Day at the Seaside

Ok it was only the Mersey, but it was a gorgeous sunny day in Liverpool and the terrace of the Conference Centre certainly felt like the end of the pier. Last week I took up an open invitation to attend the Labour Party Conference as a visitor. I do this kind of thing every now and then, I suppose as much out of idle curiosity as any naive belief that you might actually be able to influence anyone. 

I've made the journey down to Parliament a few times, but I really wasn't prepared for the security hoops you have to go through to get to a party conference. The comparison couldn't be more stark. Any citizen can just turn up unannounced at the House of Commons, ask to see their MP and without the need to show any ID, they will be ushered straight into the Lobby, following a quick trip through a standard airport metal detector. Not so for Liverpool. A months notice; extensive application form; a referee; passport and driving licence details, and a photo were all required. Fascinating.

Anyway, I digress. Once the novelty of spotting famous people had subsided - and I found myself almost swept up by accident in Ed Milibands entourage - I eventually got to put my question to an open 'fringe' session chaired by Hilary Benn. 'Keep it short and snappy I thought' - (I'm always amazed how long-winded some people are)  "Is there any chance politicians might be able to talk sensibly about drug policy soon, for example by supporting a return to the prescribing of heroin, seeing as the war on drugs is failing completely?"  To my utter amazement it drew a healthy round of applause and several subsequent speakers picked up on the theme.

In response, Hilary had a stab at trying to sound concerned and provided some positive strokes, but in essence I think it's difficult for a life-long teetotaller to say anything other than "we really don't want a lot of people going round snorting stuff though do we?" I think I can see why he didn't last very long as Prisons and Probation minister before being whisked off into Overseas Development in the previous Labour government. I just don't think he quite gets the whole idea about any mind-altering substances, even legal ones. Anyway, I tried and it had been a lovely sunny day out.   

Wednesday 5 October 2011

The Beguiling Question

According to Sir David Frost, John Smith, the former leader of the Labour Party, once said that his skill as an interviewer was to 'ask the beguiling question that had a potentially catastrophic answer.' This gem was contained in the absolutely fascinating recent BBC tv 'Frost on Nixon' programme where Joan Bakewell takes David Frost back to those amazing 28 hours of interviews with disgraced former President Nixon in 1977.

I certainly remember the whole Watergate scandal, but I'm ashamed to say I never got around to watching the fruits of Frost's marathon series of interviews, culminating as they did in a reflective and chastened former President coming as close as possible to a full and frank admission of guilt. When I watched this two hour special programme which included the famous exchange about Watergate, I became absolutely spell-bound by the parallels between what Frost achieved and what probation officers routinely aspire to in interviews with clients. 

Interviewing is without doubt a skill. I'm not sure it can be taught as such because in essence it has to be a personal process in order to extract vital information from an often unwilling and uncooperative individual. The circumstances surrounding often horrific crimes are not easy topics for analytical discussion and the process is understandably charged with emotion. The patient skill of the interviewer is to get to the truth not just about what actually happened, but the underlying motive. I can assure you it's not easy and watching this tv programme brought memories flooding back of many hours of intellectual battle with a particular client of mine over more than 20 years. 

It was this particular case because I've always found it difficult to admit failure, and maybe I now know why. There never was the 'golden' moment when he just caved in to my forensic and patient questioning. All my efforts over many hours of exhausting intellectual and emotional battle would only ever end with him saying 'just tell me what you want to hear.'  To my astonishment when Frost gets Nixon to the absolute knub of the issue, Nixon responds by asking Frost 'What would you say?'  A dumbfounded Frost is at first shaken, but then provides a three-point answer that opens the floodgates and triggers Nixon's heartfelt and humble apology. 

I now realise that I almost certainly got it wrong. My client really did want to hear what I felt he ought to say and my crass answer 'just tell me the truth' was never going to work. It just might have unlocked the door and enabled me to ring the investigating police officer as he suggested if I ever got to the truth.    

Thursday 22 September 2011

Amazing and Unique Opportunity!

I notice that the London Probation Trust has teamed up with UserVoice in order to set up four pilot Service User Councils as part of the Offender Engagement Project. On the face of it, a good idea worth trying, but I can't help thinking they've slightly over-egged the concept - 'amazing and unique' - especially as funding only seems to be in place till the end of the current financial year. I think there are a couple of dead giveaway signs of a degree of panic amongst senior managers. The blurb talks about 'issue-based groups' and the need for responses to be 'solution-focussed.' If I'm not mistaken code for 'the last thing we want to hear is a lot of carping about how crap the Service is.' But I am an old cynic.

In a funny way it reminds me of my confirmation year having gained my qualifications at University. In those days you served an appropriately labelled 'probationary year' during which support was provided in the form of a First Year Officers group. A great idea that worked well from the new practitioners point of view, but quietly dropped by management when they became suspicious of the potential problems caused by an organised element within the workforce. A familiar story eh?

This initiative by London gives me cause for another wry grin and that's to do with the seemingly interminable internal discussions about exactly what to call people. It would seem that the term 'offender' is well and truely buried, in favour of 'service-user.' At least this is preferable to being called a 'case' but I understand officers who stick resolutely to the traditional term 'client' will not be penalised. Thankfully it looks like the Service nationally is set to drop 'offender manager' in favour of - yes you guessed it - Probation Officer! Well I for one never used it so I can be slightly smug and say 'I told you so.' At least we will now be able to once more differentiate between Probation Services Officers and Probation Officers, although this will not be universally welcome I suspect.    

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Mixed Messages

As we all know, a week is a long time in politics and the fallout from the riots seem set to erode yet further many of the laudable aims embraced by Ken Clarke's 'Rehabilitation Revolution.'  First to go of course was the 50% reduction in sentence for a timely guilty plea. Then the riots served to focus attention on the whole business of granting bail pending conviction with a widespread suspicion that refusal to grant bail in over 60% of cases was being used as a punishment in itself and strictly not allowed.

Of course in many quarters - lets call them the usual suspects - this has met with warm approval, thus making tinkering with the operation of the bail system less likely. Ken had hoped to be able to restrict remands into custody as one part of his strategy to reduce the prison population, but getting that aspect through Parliament now looks doubtful. Now it seems that the Prime Minister is so concerned about the Daily Mail and Express that he feels it important that the 'Rehabilitation Revolution' becomes the 'Rehabilitation and Punishment Revolution.' The suspicion is that all kinds of extra punishment options might find there way into the bill, like benefit removal and housing eviction. How this will assist with rehabilitation I have absolutely no idea.

I've always had a great deal of respect for normally plain-speaking Ken Clarke. Lets be honest, any politician that incurs the wrath of the right-wing press can't be all bad in my book. The trouble is he absolutely detests the Probation Service and just like a disgruntled son-in-law who can't bring himself to talk about the mother-in-law, simply never mentions us. I listened to him again recently being interviewed on BBC 2's Newsnight and all he could bring himself to say somewhat tardily was 'there are some good probation and prison officers.' But that was in the same breath as his repeated desire to put all our work out to tender in the private sector. He normally fails to mention us at all which you can imagine does nothing for morale. Where is that White Knight coming to our aid when you need him?

Monday 19 September 2011

Attitudes to Crime

This weekend I found myself having an unusually long think. In this case it was triggered by the news that yet another burglar had been killed by a householder, but it'd been brewing all day. The Sunday Times had the astounding story of sheep rustling on its front page. Not the usual odd animal dragged into the back of a 4x4 in the dead of night, but an entire flock of 1,500 total value £100,000. This is becoming outright plundering of Britain's green and pleasant land and comes hard on the heels of the desecration of churches by lead thieves and routine stripping of northern streets of yorkstone paving. So many statues are being stolen that copies are having to be made in plastic and sadly not even war memorials appear to be sacrosanct anymore.   

Crime is the bread and butter world for probation officers of course and on a routine basis they have to try and make sense of the often tragic consequences of all kinds of human behaviour and depravity. We are always on a quest to answer the question 'why?' Sometimes it's easy, sometimes not, but at the same time we have to deal with our own feelings and attitudes as citizens and human beings.

I well remember this being brought home to me forcefully when still in training and on placement in a busy city probation office. Quite unexpectedly, one of my cases turned into a major child protection investigation with serious allegations of sexual abuse. Clearly this was taking matters out of the appropriate realm for a student and I sought urgent advice from my practice supervisor. Imagine my surprise then when he said 'oh don't bring that to me - I've got kids of my own.' I never did have much respect for the guy and that kinda put the tin hat on it. 

As with many of us, I've been the victim of a burglary and experienced the outrage of someone violating my private space, my home. Equally the mindless vandalism of my car. I suspect my initial reactions were not much different to most people, but that's without knowing the story behind the actions. Burglary of an occupied house is pretty unusual in my experience. Even more so if there is a confrontation. On Sunday I found myself contemplating what I would do in such a situation and it's not a particularly comfortable process. I think it highly likely that my 'fight or flight' response would be violent. In mulling it over, I concluded there can't really be any other explanation for a normally non-violent person keeping Dads old truncheon hanging behind the door.


Saturday 17 September 2011

What's in a Word?

The ramifications of the riots continue and I can't help noticing how many politicians have been talking about making those convicted of riot-related offences do certain things, like meet the victims. No doubt mindful of up-coming elections and criticism of his slow return from holiday, Mayor of London Boris Johnson was quite quick off the mark in telling Justice Secretary Ken Clarke that rioters should be made to repair the damage and meet the victims. Poor side-lined Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said much the same thing in a speech emphasising that those convicted had to be made to face up to the consequences of their actions by meeting the victims. 

Now the concept of perpetrators of crimes meeting their victims has been around for a long time and pioneered by the Probation Service. Experiments in this area of work have variously gone under the name of Mediation, Reparation and more recently Restorative Justice. The idea has broad political support and the coalition government signalled early on their intention to encourage its development, dependent on resources of course. It has always been an important part of Ken Clarkes so-called 'Rehabilitation Revolution', so it shouldn't be surprising that the Prisons and Probation Minister Crispin Blunt recently announced some funding for a register of Restorative Justice Practitioners. He said:-

'Restorative Justice is a unique process that helps to repair the damage caused by crime as well as helping to stop offenders committing further crimes. It demands criminals take an active role in acknowledging the harm they have caused, as well as making amends.   'If we are to better tackle the rate of criminals who reoffend, and so bring down crime, we are clear that we must have robust programmes of both punishment and reform available to our courts.

'Making criminals see for themselves the consequences of their actions, as well as undertake tough punishments, can be an effective part of this; and crucially, this gives victims a say in how offenders make amends.'

What caught my eye was the tenor of the statement and choice of the word 'demands' coupled with 'making'. So here we have yet another politician talking tough in the wake of the riots and this time a government minister with departmental responsibility. The trouble is that the sentiments being expressed, involving as they clearly do that of implied compulsion, are completely counter to my understanding of the concept that underpins the restorative justice process. 

For it to be effective in its twin aims of encouraging the perpetrator to face up to the consequences of their actions and trying to heal the pain caused to the victim, it has to be a voluntary process on the part of both parties. Not only does it have to be voluntarily entered into, the whole thing has to be very carefully and sensitively arranged and moderated so as to avoid the possibility of it making a bad situation worse. It is definitely not something to be entered into lightly and it won't be suitable in anything like all cases, but where it is deemed appropriate and entered into with good faith, it has the capacity to change lives and help heal tremendous hurt. 

So, politicians please note. This is not a magic silver bullet solution to be imposed upon unwilling or unprepared convicted rioters. It is however a very potent process to be undertaken in carefully selected instances and administered by trained professionals.     

Friday 16 September 2011

Stating the Obvious

Although often ridiculed - remember the 'quiet man speaks out' speech? - I've never-the-less had an increasing degree of respect for the short-lived previous Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith, now Employment and Pensions minister. I was particularly struck by his sadly limited involvement in one of those reality tv shows masquerading as documentary/social commentary when the producers think it would be fun to mix the social classes up and see what happens. 

Along with several other Tory, Liberal and Labour party MP's, they were visited upon residents of an awful estate tower block for a few weeks in order to see 'how the other half lives.' Even though Iains involvement was curtailed because his wife was very ill, he was much more able to adapt and empathise with his temporary hosts than his colleagues. The Lib Dem guy almost had a nervous breakdown trying to come to terms with the sheer awfulness of the surroundings and the attitudes of his hosts and the pompous MP for Grimsby Austin Mitchell insisted on a minder. Only Iain seemed perfectly at ease and I remember thinking if it was because of his military background or just breeding - that very old-fashioned self-assuredness that comes with being a One Nation Tory grandee?

Anyway, it definitely seems that the tv producers time wasn't wasted in their experiment of placing legislators eyeball to eyeball with some serious social issues. This is what Iain said very recently in an article for The Times and widely quoted elsewhere:-

"Too many people have remained unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates. This was because we had ghettoised many of these problems, keeping them out of sight of the middle-class majority. Occasionally some terrible event would make it on to our front pages, but because they were small in number people were able to turn away from the problem. But last month the inner city finally came to call and the country was shocked by what it saw." He went on to say "it was not possible to arrest our way out of the riots, and a social response was needed." 

In picking up on this, Inspector Gadjet quite rightly reminds us that frontline services like the police have known all this for ages and he has blogged eloquently and vividly on the topic. But probation has known too. I well remember paying a visit to an office on the 'frontline' in Liverpool over 20 years ago and being truely shocked. There it was, standing all alone in the middle of the desolate vandalised remains of a grand post war housing experiment, a single storey temporary-looking building covered in razor wire, barred plastic windows, steel doors and all thoroughly decorated with graffiti. Heroin had already got a strangle-hold here and I remember thinking 'God, I wonder how long we've got down our way?'

But of course that was 20 years ago. I don't know for certain, but I bet that office has long gone. As I have previously lamented, probation has been retreating from such 'frontline' locations for years and now typically reside in edge-of-town megga-sized 'service delivery units' pretty well isolated from the communities they supposedly are meant to serve.

Iain has a good track record in terms of thoughtfulness on social issues and of course prior to the last election was the author of the report into child development, stressing the need to address the first signs of neglect and poor parenting as soon as possible so as to save greater heartache and cost to society later on. It's just unfortunate that he now finds himself part of a government unwilling or unable to make the necessary investment. But at least he's an enlightened voice I feel and on the face of it, an unlikely bedfellow of Inspector Gadjet's. I can't help but notice that Gadjet did not quote that bit about 'not being able to arrest our way out of the riots'. But there again, I suppose we're all guilty of some selective quoting when it suits us.